At the start of 2014, the fear among privacy activists around the world was not that surveillance would be ignored as an issue. After six months of relentless revelations from the Snowden cache, how could it? Instead, they were concerned that mass surveillance would be normalized. Numbed by the relentless list of privacy violations conducted by the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence services, would Internet users eventually just throw up their hands, and accept that the price of a global communications system was the end of privacy?
The story of 2014 is that the world remains disturbed and upset by the rise of global surveillance. Collectively, concerned lawmakers and advocates have set about reining back the surveillance state. It's also become clear that the spies aren't going to give up their power without a fight.
Popular opposition to mass surveillance remains firm. Pew's mid-year global survey of attitudes to surveillance shows the American government's monitoring of the world's citizens was seen as unacceptable by the majority of citizens in the overwhelming majority of countries.
Citizens around the world challenged the assumption that governments can spy on the world without restraint. Global advocacy around the Necessary and Proportionate Principles and its accompanying legal analysis established that dragnet surveillance is a violation of international human rights law. The United Nations became a venue where human rights experts and diplomats publicly condemned unrestrained spying — including the recent resolution by the General Assembly on the right of privacy in the digital age.
Opinion may be solidifying against surveillance, but politicians thrown onto the defensive in 2013 grew more willing to push back against reform. They sought to legitimize, legalize, and even expand the powers of the state to collect and hoard data on its citizens.
April 2014 saw the European Court of Justice establish one of the strongest roll-backs of the surveillance state so far, when it invalidated the compulsory retention of personal data by European companies for the use of law enforcement. The CJEU declared the Data Retention Directive enabled "serious interference with the fundamental rights" of privacy and data protection. Nonetheless, the UK doubled down on forcing companies to collect data on citizens, ramming through its defiant Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in just three days.
From Australia to Mexico and Paraguay, politicians used distant threats like ISIS in Syria and domestic crime and unrest to argue for more compulsory data collection, not less. Brazil rightfully celebrated the passing of the Marco Civil in 2014, a model for encoding human rights law into the digital age, but could not prevent a narrow data retention clause being inserted into the final law. And NETmundial, the Brazilian President's grassroots Internet initiative, which was specifically prompted by the NSA scandal, floundered when a closed meeting of government representatives vetoed any condemnation of surveillance in the final text.
After decades in this battle, we're not surprised when one year's work ends with us making two steps forward, and one step back. It's slow work. But now mass surveillance is no longer a secret, there’s a whole world of concerned citizens working to stop it.
This article is part of our Year In Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2014. Like what you're reading? EFF is a member-supported nonprofit, powered by donations from individuals around the world. Join us today and defend free speech, privacy, and innovation.